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Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to find a restaurant of this quality in North County, since the batting average of Mexican cooking there seems higher than in the metro area. You don't find food like this downtown, except at a few small gems in Logan Heights. I'm not saying you should drop everything and rush up to Valley Center -- but if you live nearby, or expect to pass through that area, this one's a prime pick for a fine meal.

ABOUT THE CHEF/OWNER

My phone call caught Sergio Réveles in the kitchen at Valley Center, filling in at the stove during the cook's vacation. Although he has professional cooks at both of Casa Reveles's locations, the recipes are his. "I come here in the morning and I prep everything, and then the cooks come in later to finish the orders," he says.

Mr. Réveles is from Zacatecas (in the inland Valley of Mexico, halfway between Mazatlán and Mexico City). In 1982, he was in his fourth year of medical school when he ran out of money to continue. He moved to California and found a job as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant. Within three months, he was cooking and waiting tables; he swiftly became head chef and manager, remaining for the next 11 years. About that time, his first son was born, and he struck out on his own to open the original Casa Reveles in Escondido.

Before Mr. Réveles bought the Valley Center location in August 2003, it was home to a dive bar and neglected restaurant called the Grouchy Gaucho -- so grouchy that the dining area was rarely open. "I live up here, and I moved my family up here," Mr. Réveles says. "I like it very much because the people who live here are like a big family. Once they know you, everybody helps everybody out. But I traveled around here and [realized that] there was nowhere to go out for a meal. I had a lot of customers from Valley Center in my Escondido restaurant, and they were always asking me to open a restaurant up here. So I decided that Valley Center needed a Mexican restaurant.

"And while my kids are growing up and in school, I want to work close to home. I was going to all the school meetings, and I met people there...I learned that this place [Grouchy Gaucho] was more of a bar than a restaurant. Right after I bought it, some of the people asked me to keep the bar open late, until midnight. The alcohol was most of the business then. Customers would come here just to drink -- a lot! I'd even drive some of them home myself, so they wouldn't get hurt. But I wanted this place to be more like a family restaurant. I decided to close early, including the bar. The alcohol is only about 20 percent of my business now, the rest is the food.

"My cooking is a little different from most restaurants up here," he says. "Most places cook Mexican food in more of an American style. Mine is more like the [Zacatecan] home-style. I use more of the ingredients we always used at home. My grandmother taught me to cook a lot of things -- things that people here have never seen on a menu before. Sometimes I actually give them away so that people can try them -- things like nopales cactus and tripas, marrow guts [chitlins]. Then they come back and say, 'Give me that stuff you gave me the other day!' They might not know the name of what they ate, but they like the taste once they try it."

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